Many of us think of slums as the least desirable place one could and would live in. Synonym of deprivation and harsh living conditions since they first appeared in the 19th century Britain, governments have often tried to eradicate them, usually with little success.

In his movie Slums: Cities of Tomorrow director Jean-Nicolas Orhon brings a new approach to this world-wide phenomenon that concerns more than a billion people. Not only does he guide us through these so-called informal settlements in India, Turkey or Morocco, Orhon also focuses on places one would probably not think of right away: New Jersey, France and Quebec. Although the latter have little to compare with their Indian or Moroccan counterparts in terms of comfort, might we say that all of them correlate to the same definition: an often densely populated, rundown and squalid part of a city where poor people live.

 Cities of Tomorrow, Jean-Nicolas Orhon, Hot Docs Dharavi, a neighbourhood in Mumbai, is the largest slum on the asian continent, picture by Nicolas Reeves

Orhon makes a point at providing the public with new insights on slums and, with a background in anthropology, succeeds in highlighting the complexity of the subject. Indeed, generally seen as a problem, he prefers to see slums as a solution to the lack of housing for low-income people. The movie offers an analysis depicting the complexity of these budding cities where squatters have recreated an organized environment, from the urban form that differs from slum to slum according to the origins of the people who built them, to the parallel economy spurred by the shops, trades and even urban farming run by the inhabitants in an attempt to make ends meet.

 Cities of Tomorrow, Jean-Nicolas Orhon, Hot Docs A woman sitting in front of her house in a Bangalore slum, in India, picture by Nicolas Reeves

We eventually realize that the same-for-all approach, usually consisting in building apartment blocks over the bulldozed settlements, is a failure as it does not take into account the specificities of the inhabitants' way of life. The documentary offers insightful examples on how to successfully transform these places into proper neighbourhoods connected to the city. Despite the dramatic forecasts predicting an increase in 1 billion people living in slums in the decades to come, Jean-Nicolas Orhon stays optimistic regarding their future. Initiatives like one in a Bangalore slum where the city is working with the people, consolidating the area with brick-and-mortar houses connected to the electric and sewer grids, show a positive move in the way such places start to be taken care of.

 Cities of Tomorrow, Jean-Nicolas Orhon, Hot Docs Men at work fixing a house in Kitcisakik, Quebec, image by Jean-Nicolas Orhon

Partially funded by Radio-Canada, the documentary was shot on a case by case basis, with either Orhon or collaborator Nicolas Reeves going into the field, trying to find locals or using their contacts to open some doors for them on the communities. After successful screenings in Canada, Portugal, Germany and Australia, the movie made its way to the 17th United Nation Association Film Festival in San Francisco last October.

 Cities of Tomorrow, Jean-Nicolas Orhon, Hot Docs Jean-Nicolas Orhon, director of Slums: Cities of Tomorrow

Jean-Nicolas Orhon hopes his work will have an impact locally and help changing our look upon the slum issue. After the end of the public screenings at the end of this year, the movie will be used as an educational tool in universities for architecture and urban planning students, from whom he has already had numerous requests.

If you wish to catch the movie, it will be showing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, from November 7th through November 13th.